What I Did On My Christmas Holiday

Been a little quiet around here, huh? Christmas does that. Lots of family stuff going on, both for me and my gaming group. But I’m trying to get back to some more regular gaming – and blogging – now. And to start off, I’m going to do a bit of a recap of what I’ve been up to over Christmas.

  • Castle Ravenloft – I demoed this boardgame at C4 this past year, but there’s a real difference between co-ordinating a demo and actually playing. It’s quite a fun game. Three of us played, and we got through two scenarios that evening, with time left over to play something else. The speed of play is a huge bonus, in my opinion, and the randomness of the game means there’s good replay value. In short, it looks like they’ve taken all the cool stuff of Descent and weeded out the things that made Descent ((To be clear, I like Descent, but it is a long game, and doesn’t quite have the cool to justify the length of play.)) take forever – prep time, convoluted combat, adversarial plan, things like that. The downside is that it’s only good for five players, currently, though the forthcoming Wrath of Ashardalon, which is supposed to be compatible with Ravenloft, should address that.
  • Chrononauts – We got in two games of this card game after playing Ravenloft. It was so good that I went to the game store the next day to buy a copy for myself1. The rules are very simple, but the strategic play involved in trying to change the right lynchpins in the timeline so that the ripples bring about the future you need is quite deep. Again, fast play and great replay value, as everyone gets two different goal cards each time you play.
  • Battlestar Galactica – I managed to get in two games2of this, finally getting a chance to try out at least part of the Pegasus expansion. In addition, I’m currently involved in a play-by-forum game with some friends. It’s still a fantastic game, but the urgency and tension that you get playing face-to-face is mitigated somewhat by the delay in playing online.
  • Arkham Horror – Lately, whenever we play this, we play without the extra boards. Otherwise, there’s no hope of actually finishing a game with my group. But I have added the figures for the investigators and some nice little accessories from Litko to enhance the experience. We faced off against Ghatanothoa last time, and we kicked his ugly ass back out of reality. And only one investigator was devoured!
  • Shadowlands – After a lengthy hiatus, my friend Clint got us back to his D&D 3.5 campaign, and it felt good to get back.
  • Gammatoba – My Storm Point crew has voted to go with my Gamma World pitch, and we’re running a short game set in the ruined wasteland of Red Valley, where the brave initiates of the Fort LoGray Legion are venturing into Great City One to prove their mettle and achieve full membership. That starts this Sunday.
  • Dread – After hearing a lot about this game, I finally bought it and am about half-way through reading it. It’s got some great ideas, but I’m a little concerned about whether it would fit my game group – specifically, the idea that players are out if the tower falls. In general, I don’t like elimination mechanics in games, and especially in RPGs, and having the chance that a character just dies and is out in the first five minutes of play is not something I’m comfortable with. That said, the recommendations for pulls make it look like one pull per five minutes of play making for things getting tense as you near the four-hour mark. I’d have to see it in action, I think, to judge it fairly, but it makes me uncertain.
  • Leverage – I’m a fan of the TV show, and The Quickstart Job looked cool enough that I bought the main book3, and I was completely blown away. I’m putting together a group to run The Quickstart Job, and then I’m going to have much more to say about this game. One thing I’ll mention here is that, while The Quickstart Job seems to do a good job of introducing the style of the game, it leaves out a number of the really cool parts of the game4.
  • Smallville – I picked this up on the strength of Leverage – they both use a tweaked set of the Cortex rules system. I had passed on Smallville earlier because everything I had read about said that it focused more on the teen soap opera dynamic than the superhero facet of the setting. And that’s right, but the way the rules have been tailored to do that is worth the read, even if, like me, you never intend to run the game. If nothing else, the character creation process, which creates the rest of the supporting cast, themes, locations, and basic plotlines as a byproduct of building the characters, is immensely lootable.
  • Fiasco – I didn’t get to play as much Fiasco as I had hoped5over the break. But I did have several people express real interest in giving it a try when things settled down. So, there’ll be some games in the near future6.
  • Bookhounds of London – Picked up the preorder for this. I’ve only just scratched the surface of it so far, but it looks amazing. But you knew that, right? I mean, it’s written by Ken Hite, fergawdsake!
  • Writing – I set myself a goal of 1000 words per day for the novel I’m trying to write. I didn’t live up to that, but I did manage about 11,000 words in total. That’s not too bad, and gives me a strong foundation for the rest of it. I just need to make working on it a more regular part of my day.

So, that’s the way the Christmas vacation shaped up for me. It’s got me pumped about gaming in the coming year7, so expect to see me going on at length about various things in the near future.

  1. I also got the three supplements for the game, and am looking forward to trying them out. []
  2. In one of them, I finally got to be a cylon! []
  3. I’ve received the .pdf, but no sign of the printed book yet. I’m anxiously awaiting it. []
  4. In addition, it looks like the fight rules have changed between The Quickstart Job and the release of the main book. I like the new changes – they make things faster and more cinematic. []
  5. As in, I did not get to play any Fiasco. []
  6. Yes, Karla and Ryan, that means you. []
  7. Like any more pumping was necessary. []

Finding the Cool

I had the edges of this idea stuck in my head, and rather than lose it, I sent it out by Twitter:

Thought on #rpg – The game is not the story of my character. It is the story of our characters. We need to help each other find the cool.

A few people seemed to think that was interesting enough to retweet, so I kept mulling it over, trying to articulate exactly what I mean by that.

First of all, even though I haven’t stated it overtly1, my view of roleplaying games is that they are vehicles for creating moments of coolness – cool characters, cool scenes, cool situations, cool adventures, cool villains, cool… whatever. They are cooperative tools for collectively evoking that coolness in play. They are the frameworks we use to construct fantasies that generate the kinds and flavours of cools we find most compelling.

This leads to the thought that we all have the same job in a roleplaying game: looking for, evoking, and highlighting the cool. Whether as players or GMs, we should be trying to add as much cool to the game as we can.

Now, this is all neatly sidestepping the question of what is and is not cool. That’s because the value of cool changes with each group, with each game, with each session, with each person. The functional value of cool is collectively determined through the process of play, and is not easily predicted or repeated. Indeed, repetition of a single cool thing often depletes the cool, devaluing it. Such is the nature of a subjective judgment.

But cool is like pornography: we all know it when we see it. So, if I don’t define what it is, exactly, I still have faith that you all know exactly what I’m talking about, even if your idea of it is completely different from mine.

Now, where the characters come in. I’ve been looking back over the course of my roleplaying career, and I’ve noticed an interesting progression in my play. This is highlighted by the fact that, in my extended gaming group, there are players at pretty much every stage of roleplaying experience, and I see some of the things I went through in their play2. Couple that with the interesting way that games like Fiasco really sell story over character, and I’ve been doing some real thinking about how I play games.

One of the common approaches we take to games is that they are the story of the character we happen to be playing. And, to a degree, they are. And, just as in real life, we are the heroes of our own stories. So, we focus on how the situation affects our characters, and choose our reactions and options to reflect our characters’ objectives and desires. We make use of our time in the spotlight to push forward our characters’ narrative. And this pushes forward the group narrative, as well.

Lately, though, I’ve been noticing the wonderful freedom that comes from playing a character that I’ve decided is a supporting character, rather than the main character. I know, it sounds like it runs counter to the entire point of playing in a roleplaying game, but it really doesn’t. In fact, I think it helps build more cool into the game.

In Fiasco, there usually comes a tipping point, where everyone figures out who the story is really about. I mean, sure, it’s an ensemble story, with everyone contributing to the overall plot, and everyone playing their character hard, going after what’s important, but one narrative thread usually presents itself as the most interesting and compelling out of the mess. When you spot that thread, the way to make Fiasco really work is to drive everything toward that thread and the characters it features. It makes the story cooler. When you don’t drive toward the obvious thread, when you instead keep pulling on your own character’s objectives without regard for that central emerging narrative, you wind up with several smaller, less cool stories.

Either way, Fiasco is fun, but one way produces a much cooler story than the other, and that produces more fun.

What this means in practice is that you sometimes must relegate your character to supporting character status if you want to bring out the coolest aspects of the game possible. So, for example, if it becomes clear that Frank, the dirty cop, is the main character, and the story becomes about his attempts to redeem himself, then I, playing his ex-wife Margaret, want to make that story as interesting, as cool as possible. That doesn’t mean that I play every scene with Frank, or always defer to him, or keep talking about him when he’s not there; but it does mean that, when my scene comes around, I want to do something that’s going to come up in the main storyline, something that will give Frank a little more to deal with, something that will give Frank an opportunity to do something cool. So, maybe I start dating the guy Frank just befriended.

See, that way, I’ve done something that fits with who Margaret is, and fits her narrative, but also adds a cool element to Frank’s narrative, because you know Frank’s going to find out and have to deal with it. The story becomes cooler for everyone3.

But that’s Fiasco, right? It’s not like a normal roleplaying game4. Sure, but does have a lot to teach us that is useful in a normal roleplaying game. Some big, valuable lessons about pacing, narrative control, scene structure, conflict, and dynamic tension.

And how to support another character’s storyline.

In a lot of roleplaying games, when it’s not your turn, or when the spotlight is firmly on someone else’s character, we tend to sit around, waiting for our turn. Sure, we pay attention, and maybe offer suggestions or commentary, and we enjoy the show, but really, we’re waiting for our moment to shine. When we come up to bat, it’s all about our character.

But it doesn’t have to be. Just because someone else has the spotlight doesn’t mean that we need to grab it back at the first opportunity. Or that we need to use it just to shine on us when we get it. We can take the opportunity to help another character be cool.

Because what I said earlier is true – the game is not the story of my character. Nor of yours. It is, collectively, the story of all our characters. In a good game, like in a good ensemble TV series5, each character is going to get some of the spotlight every session, but one or two – with their specific storyline(s) – are going to be singled out for the main focus. This allows each character to grow and develop as they move forward, and more to the point, allows the group as a whole to grow and develop. The dynamic and relationships will shift and change, deepening and broadening, making the entire thing feel more real. More cool.

See, this very interesting thing happened at the last New Centurions game. One of the players, introducing her character, told about how she was sent back to the past to help avoid a huge disaster. The disaster? Apparently, in her timeline, my character, a robot, fails catastrophically, blowing up Manhattan Island. Now, this was just something she had come up with, no input from me or the GM, and my initial reaction was… less than pleased6.

But the more I thought about it, the more I saw what a gift she had given me7. I mean, she just added an entire layer of coolness to my character with that little idea. Suddenly, my character was not just an emergency rescue robot, he had this sword of Damocles hanging over him, and the relationship between our characters takes a strange turn into very complex – and interesting, and cool – territory.

It was part of her story, but it made her a strong supporting character in my story as well. It was something that she did that added to my cool.

So, I want to look for opportunities like that, now. In addition to focusing on my character’s story when I get my moments in the spotlight, I want to try and shine some of the spotlight on another player’s character, helping them to find something new and cool to add. I want to look for the cool in other PCs, in NPCs, in the situations and stories and environment8. I’m not looking at turning my characters into incompetent fools just to make the other characters look good – I want to use the cool of my character to bolster the cool of others. Maybe this will mean some strange character choices – not always playing fully to my character’s strengths, giving in to my characters weaknesses a little more, maybe getting captured or hurt or whatever to give someone else a chance to be the hero – but I think it will allow more cool to be found in the story.

More to the point, I want to spend the time between my spotlight moments looking at ways that I can contribute to the cool things the other characters are doing, without stealing the spotlight from them. What support can I give that will make the other character cool? What can I say or do that will give them the opportunity or tools or ideas that let them take their characters to the next level of coolness?

Because the game is not the story of my character, although my character’s story is a part of it.

The game is the story of our characters.

And we all need to help each other find the cool.

Because wherever the cool is found, we all get to share in it.

  1. At least, I don’t think I have. []
  2. I want to stress at this point that the things I’m seeing aren’t bad. They are legitimate ways of approaching and enjoying roleplaying games. I have just found other ways of approaching and enjoying games that I find work better for me. []
  3. And poor Margaret ends up with a broken heart and a black eye, while Frank winds up in the office of a movie producer with a gun. []
  4. Whatever those are. []
  5. Boston Legal was a great example of this, actually, and Leverage continues to be. []
  6. I mean come on! She’s messing with my character! []
  7. So, thanks for that, Fera! []
  8. Because GMs deserve some coolness, too. []

Enemy Mine: The Adversarial GM

Had an interesting experience the other day that led to some interesting conversations that led to some interesting musing that I thought I’d share.

Here’s how it started.

Imagine Games and Hobbies is running the D&D Encounters program here in Winnipeg. I do the organizing for them – ordering the packages, arranging the GMs, reporting on the games, stuff like that. I also ran a table through the first season, but couldn’t commit to it this season. One of the GMs wasn’t able to make it to the session this past Wednesday*, so I sat in for him. We were joking about how I was going to do my best to kill at least one of the players.

The game went well, and nobody died, though I had them on the ropes a few times. One of the players, who had played at my table last season, said, “I don’t like this. I want Barry back. You’re too mean.” And this morning, I had this little exchange on Twitter:

Me: Players in #dndenc last night as I was roughing up their characters: “We miss our regular DM!” I count that as a win.

The_Eardrums: @Neal_Rick so that’s what i’ve been doing wrong – all this time i’ve been trying to make it a fun experience for EVERYONE, not just myself.

Me: @The_Eardrums Yep. Make ’em cry if you can. Gamer tears are like candy.

And then I had a conversation with one of my players, with whom I work. She and I talked a little bit about the idea of the adversarial GM, and what that does in the game. It got me thinking and, because I can’t seem to have an unexpressed thought*, writing.

The Adversarial GM

There is an inherently adversarial relationship that roleplaying games set up between GM and players. The GM, after all, is the one who designs the opposition and, in many ways, personifies the conflict. It’s the GM who gets the yea or nay vote on whether cool plans work, and whether the characters succeed in their goals. When a monster kills a character, it’s the GM wielding the offending dice. When a character falls into a pit and gets impaled on spikes, it’s the GM who put that pit there. When a thief picks a character’s pocket, it’s the GM who made the thief do it.

The GM is the adversary, right?

Some games go farther to encourage this than others. Paranoia goes perhaps the farthest towards making the GM the bad guy, but Amber does a pretty fair job of it, too, and I’ve got to say that Blowback seems to do it pretty solidly, too. Most game talk about how the GM is supposed to work with the players to make a good, fun game, but in the end, the GM* is the one who comes up with the opposition, the conflict, the failures, and the consequences*.

When you walk into the dungeon, or start the shadowrun, or decide to investigate the haunted house, or whatever, you know that your GM is just waiting to lay some hurt on you. And you’ve got to use all your wits, resources, rules-knowledge, and luck to escape with your life.

It’s all crap, of course.

The Absolute Power of the GM

I’ve been gaming for the better part of three decades. I have run, and played, so many games that I can’t keep track of them. And I came to the conclusion long ago that the GM can kill the characters, using the rules and playing fairly, any time he or she wants. If you factor in the ease of cheating*, characters don’t have a chance. The GM can kill them on a whim.

If you accept the above paragraph, it’s obvious that the GM cannot be a true adversary, or the players would keep dying.

This leads to the tendency among GMs to want to be seen as tough but fair – if you play at the top of your game, you can beat the GM, but only if you play at the top of your game. It’s the player-on-the-other-side syndrome, as expressed by Aldous Huxley, who might as well have been writing about RPGs, GMs, and players when he wrote this:

The chess board is the world, the pieces the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. All we know is that his play is always fair, just and patient. But, also, that he never overlooks a mistake or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance. To the man who plays well the highest stakes are paid with that sort of overflowing generosity with which the strong shows delight in strength. And one who plays ill is checkmated without haste, but without remorse.

There are a couple of problems with this approach, though. Metagame thinking enters play in two equally dangerous ways: first, the idea that the GM will never pose a challenge to the players that they can’t overcome, and second, that there is always a right way to solve a given problem. The first type of thinking means that the GM can never scare the characters away with a challenge, forcing them to back off and find a different way*. The second type of thinking can lead to a lot of wasted time as the players try to find the secret WIN button to solve the problem.

All of this is also crap, of course.

The Hidden Power of the Players

In reality, the players exert tremendous power in the game, through their ability to walk away. If players leave the game, the GM loses power.If the GM is going on his ultimate power trip, demanding top-level tactical and strategic play from players who really just want to talk to NPCs and pretend to be nobility, the game’s going to evaporate. If the players aren’t getting what they want, they won’t play. That’s why a lot of early GM advice books talk about how important it is for the GM to make sure the players are having fun, even at the expense of his or her own fun.

This power is subtle, because it’s mainly social, but it’s dominant, because players tend to outnumber the GM. A group of players with a united vision of the game can impose that vision – and associated play style – on the GM, just by the way they play the characters, the things they decide to attempt, and the interest they show in the various plots the GM shows them. So, in a lot of ways, the GM is always at the mercy of the players, driven to perform for their entertainment. Of course the GM is going to be adversarial.

And this, also, is crap.

We’re In This Together

Well, the three points above aren’t really crap, as you probably know. But they are incomplete in and of themselves. It’s a mix of all three of them that produce the power dynamic in a game.

Gaming, as I’ve said before and will say again, is a social activity. There is an expectation that people in a gaming group – players and GMs alike – will adhere to the culture of the group, behaving in a manner that reinforces the shared values and practices of the group. What I mean is that, if you’re playing with your friends, you still act like you’re friends when you’re playing.

Really, everyone has walk-away power. If the GM isn’t having fun, no more GM. If the players aren’t having fun, no more players. And the social pressure that shapes the nature of the play experience comes from both sides of the screen, so the GM has a big influence on the type of game – of course.

But there is an adversarial factor in the role of GM. Of course there is. There has to be for the game to work. But it’s a false adversarial relationship, because of the true goal of the game. What’s the true goal of the game? Well, it’s not to beat the monsters, or win the hand of the princess, or even to hang out and spend time with your friends.

The Evocation of Cool

In my opinion*, the true purpose of playing in a roleplaying game is to create a story that abounds with moments of cool, for various values of cool. What I mean is that the cool that I’m looking for in D&D is a different kind of cool than what I’m looking for in Trail of Cthulhu, and both are very different from the cool I look for when playing Fiasco. Hell, the kind of cool I look for with different gaming groups playing the same system will vary based on the group.

But I’m always looking for the cool, whether as a GM or a player. And I do what I can to bring moments of cool with me to the table.

See, as a GM, it may seem that you have the best position to produce cool at the table. After all, you control the environment, set the challenges, lay out the story development, all that good stuff. The players just bring their characters. But there’s a reason you’re playing a roleplaying game and not just writing your online novel: the true moments of cool, the best moments of cool, all come from an intersection of ideas between the GM and the players.

It’s not the shattered, ancient stone stairs over the pool of lava that makes that fight cool, it’s the characters leaping from platform to platform over the gaps while doing their best to fight off the phase spiders. It’s not the short audience with Odin that makes the trip to Valhalla cool, its the scene where one character tries to bluff his way to a better seat in the meadhall. It’s not the crystals growing inside one of the characters that makes the Chaugnar Faugn encounter cool, it’s the frantic use of speakers and high frequencies to shatter those crystals.

The evocation of cool is the responsibility of both the player and the GM, because only when both sides are working for it will it truly be memorably cool.

All The Sweeter

But let’s get back to the adversarial GM idea, because it factors into the evocation of cool in a special way.

As GM, you are expected to act as an adversary to a degree, simply because you are the one who produces the bulk of the conflict, difficulty, and challenge in the game. You pick the monsters, lay out the traps, set the mystery in place, do the NPC’s scheming, and generally work to make life more difficult for the characters. That’s part of your job.

And in order to maximize the cool, you need to make sure that the challenges are actually challenging, as well as making sure that they’re interesting. The players want the excitement of being challenged in game, whether they’ll admit it or not, both because it’s more interesting, and because they will value their achievements more. If you hand them a great reward, they want to feel as if they’ve earned it*, or else it doesn’t really mean anything to them.

What this means, though, is that you need to be able to judge their capabilities properly, and set the challenge at the right level. Often, this may mean having to adjust things on the fly, making sure that things are just difficult enough for what you’re trying to achieve, and no tougher.

Now, that’s not to say you shouldn’t throw the characters an easy challenge from time to time. It’s vital that you do that, because it will emphasize both how much tougher the tough challenges are, and how much more capable the characters are becoming. In fact, having the bulk of the challenges be of low to moderate difficulty really underlines when you’re taking the gloves off.

Perils of the Adversarial GM

Yeah, so the GM has to act, at least in part, as the adversary. But never, ever, ever should you start to believe that you are, in fact, the characters’ opponent – or worse, the players’ opponent. It will kill the fun, both for you and for the players, and may even threaten friendships.

I’ve talked before about the way Amber sets up an adversarial relationship between the GM and players. While the general notions are fun, the game went, I feel, waaaaay too far in making sure the players knew that the GM was there primarily to screw them over. That bred such an atmosphere of distrust in the game – a game with no dice, so nothing could be blamed on luck – that, as GM, I felt constantly on the defensive about every decision or judgment I made. Players would always seek to find away around a negative answer from me, and I had to resort, far too many times, to the sorry answer of, “Because I’m the GM and I said so!”

Another friend and I had an ongoing problem for years that we had to work hard to overcome – it was a weird competitive thing that neither of us was aware of. When I ran a game and he played in it, I would do my level best to crush his character. When he ran a game and I played in it, he would do his level best to crush my character. It got to the point where the other players were convinced that we were going to come to blows over some slight in the game. The truly bizarre thing was that neither of us was aware of doing it at the time, yet it was painfully obvious to everyone else at the table.

What we’re talking about here, of course, is trust. You need an underlying atmosphere of trust beneath any adversarial relationship that develops between players and GM. The players and GM need to trust each other, and each other’s vision of the game, enough that they can strive together for those moments of coolness that make the games worth playing. Even if it looks like someone’s being a dick, if there’s a solid level of trust that’s been well-earned and respected throughout the game, that someone will get the benefit of the doubt* that there’s a non-dick purpose in it.

But abusing the trust, intentionally or unintentionally, will cause the trust to evaporate, and the adversarial relationship to blossom in the most negative way. These kinds of things can sneak up on you, and really sour your games. Remember, you’re playing the role of the adversary; you’re not actually the adversary.

There’s only one way to make sure this doesn’t happen, and that’s to talk. Check in from time to time, as GM or player or just as friends, to see how the game is going, and what people are enjoying and what they’re not. Don’t let things fester – drag them out into the light and fix them. It’ll make the game work better, last longer, and be more fun.


Those are my thoughts after my discussions earlier this week. I hope they make sense; I’m just glad to get them coherent enough to write. The subject is a tricky one, but I think I’ve sorted out my position well enough in my own mind.

What about you folks? Any thoughts? Let me know.


*Feel better soon, Barry! Back

*I heard that, Sandy! Back

*GM-less games, of course, spread that burden among the players. Back

*Of course, the GM also comes up with the allies, the celebrations, the successes, and the rewards, but mostly we overlook that, don’t we, players? Back

*Which is just a pointless dick move. Back

*Well, he or she can, but it tends to elicit cries of railroading. Which may need to be another article in the future. Back

*And it should be obvious by now that that’s the only opinion I truly care about. 😉 Back

*Here’s a neat idea for a game that I’ve seen work very well: give the characters a huge sum of money, or a magic item, or whatever kind of reward the game system allows, with no strings attached. If you’ve got savvy players, they’ll immediately start worrying about why, and you’ve got an entire scenario based on them trying to figure out what’s going on before the other shoe drops. Back

*For a while, at least. If the trust is not rewarded, the benefit of the doubt will evaporate. Back

Adventure Construction

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about building adventures over the past couple of months. I want to talk about what got me to thinking about this, and about what thoughts I’ve had.

When D&D 3e came out, for a long time, I ran nothing but D&D. Right up into 4e, in fact. And D&D made up the bulk of what I was playing, too. Now, before 3e, I was running a much broader variety and range of games – Vampire: The Masquerade, Mage: The Ascension, Call of Cthulhu, Nephilim, Amber, stuff like that. But D&D was fun, and easy for people to get into, so I started doing more and more of that.

Lately, I’ve been running less and less D&D, and more and more other games. I’ve found that – well, this sounds needlessly harsh, but it’s the best way to describe it – running so much D&D has caused my adventure-building muscles to atrophy*.

Don’t get me wrong: I love D&D. I love playing it, I love running it. But it focuses on a very specific type of adventure – one that is easy-to-access, simple to understand, and driven by external conflicts. Now, I don’t want to get into a huge discussion about all the exceptions to this because, yes, it can be run in other ways, with different types of adventures, and all that. The fact is that the support material – the adventures, the articles, the advice in the books, the entire Building Adventures chapter in the DMG – all focuses on producing that specific play experience, for good or ill*.

So, when I started looking at running other, different types of game, I found myself reiterating the D&D adventure model, whether it fit the game or not, because that was the style of game I was most familiar with, and most comfortable with prepping and running. That left me* vaguely frustrated and unsatisfied with the way I was running these games, which led me to go back to first principles and start thinking about what adventures are, what they aren’t, and how I like to build adventures. Here’s what I’ve come up with: my universal adventure-building checklist. It’s high-level thinking, and doesn’t get into the specifics of how to build a good adventure for any specific system – just my sort-of metathinking about adventure construction.

1. Know Your Audience.

The group playing in the Storm Point game is very different from the group playing in the Hunter game, which is different again from the group playing in the Armitage Files game, which is different from the group in the Fearful Symmetries game. There are a number of factors that contribute to the kind of adventure you’re going to create:

  1. The focus level of the group. Storm Point is beer-and-pretzels D&D, with a lot of out-of-character discussion, distraction, socializing, and occasional viewings of YouTube videos. Fearful Symmetries tends to focus strongly on the game pretty much from the get-go, with few tangents, and the players keeping track of multiple storylines. They require different kinds of adventures.
  2. The interests of the group. My Armitage Files players are interested in the creepy mysteries, with nice touches of historical accuracy, and the opportunity to risk death or madness for the chance to make the world a marginally brighter place. The Hunter characters are more interested in following a trail of clues and solving a puzzle, rather than in the mood created by the puzzle, but also in the interactions between the PCs. If you’re not giving the group what they’re interested in, they’ll stop being interested in the game.
  3. The size of the group. I’ve got six players in Storm Point, three in Armitage Files, two in Fearful Symmetries, and five in Hunter. Smaller groups mean you can give more individual attention to the characters, and focus more on their own agendas. Larger groups mean that you can throw more complex and varied problems at the group and they have a good chance of solving them.

Gaming is a social activity, is what I’m saying, and the dynamics and interests of the group should have an impact on the types of adventures you build for them. Also, remember, you’re a member of the group: your focus level and interests count for something, too.

2. Know Your Game System

This is not about knowing all the rules of the game you run, though you’ll find that makes things easier in the long run. What’s more important is knowing what kind of play experience the game has been designed to produce.

Every game has a play experience that it excels at producing. It has to, because it’s the product of human minds that value certain aspects of play over other aspects. These assumptions – conscious or not – seep into the design of the game, colouring the final play style. After all, no system can do everything equally well, so any system is going to be stronger in some areas than in others.

Examples? D&D focuses on set pieces linked by either geography (site-based adventures) or time (event-based adventures) or both, producing strong, well-defined climactic moments of conflict. Dresden Files RPG focuses on creating strong emotional investment by the characters (and the players) in the events and settings. Hunter focuses on the inner emotional life of characters in crisis situations. Trail of Cthulhu focuses on the desperate struggle to find enough information that the characters have a chance of confounding the threats they face.

Now, all these games do more than what I’ve listed above*, but these are the play experiences that the designers seem to value, and therefor that the games support most strongly. You can build a dungeon crawl in Trail of Cthulhu, sure, or an introspective game of personal horror in D&D, but the game system does not offer as many tools to do those things. Knowing what the game system does best helps you figure out what sorts of adventures will work well in that system.

3. Get an Idea

The first two steps are pretty passive*; this is where you need to start doing the real work. You need an idea for your adventure.

Writers always get asked where they get their ideas, and if you weed out the flippant answers that they give because they’re tired of the question, the true answer comes down to “I get my ideas wherever I can.” Adopting the same approach for designing adventures is the best way to ensure that you keep the ideas flowing strongly. How do I get my ideas?

  1. Reading game material. I read a lot of games, even games that I’ll never play, because I never know what will spark the idea for the next adventure.
  2. Reading my game notes. Setting stuff that I’ve developed and forgotten, notes about what the characters have done in game, throw-away comments, anything can lead to a good idea.
  3. Reading other books. Fantasy, science fiction, horror, mystery, history, literature, travel, comic books, mainstream fiction, whatever. Wherever there’s a good story, there’s something I can loot.
  4. TV and movies. Don’t be limited to genre stuff, either. Cities of the Underworld has been very helpful for building dungeon crawls, for example. Steal from whatever looks good*.
  5. Paying attention to my players. Sometimes the actions of a character will resonate with an idea in your head, and you’ve got a whole adventure sprouting up out of nowhere.
  6. Ask the players outright. “Okay, gang, you’ve finished this adventure. What are your characters interested in doing next?” Not only can it give you an idea for an adventure, it also shows you what the players are finding most interesting and fun about your game*.

What this all means is that you should steal shamelessly from any source that strikes your fancy.

4. Flesh Out the Idea

I use flowcharts* to build my adventures, and I usually wind up building two or three for each adventure. One always shows the background for the adventure: what is happening, and why. Another may map out the relationships between NPCs (and PCs), or serve as a framework for encounters, events, or scenes. These are usually pretty quick to build – ten to fifteen minutes for each, I find. Once I’ve built the flowcharts, I add detail to them, making sure there are at least a couple of ways that the characters can become entangled in the plot, and this can take a little longer.

One of the important things I decide at this point is how well the idea fits the game and the audience. Sometimes, you can tell right of the hop if things area  good fit or not, but sometimes you need to start trying to fit the peg in the hole before you realize it’s the wrong shape. Questions I ask myself at this stage:

  1. How fluid is the adventure? For Storm Point, I want decision points, but still want to keep things pretty linear. For Armitage Files, I want a solid idea of what’s going on behind the scenes, but not assumptions about how the characters proceed, giving them lots of freedom. For Fearful Symmetries, I try and keep a few different plots simmering, letting the characters wander into whichever ones catch their interest.
  2. How long is the adventure? I try and keep the Hunter games to very episodic single-sessions, while I figure on five to seven sessions for each Storm Point adventure.
  3. Does the adventure leverage the good things about the audience and the system? I try and make sure that the game hits the hot buttons of the players and the sweet spot of the system.
  4. Does the adventure do what I need it to do in the game? In an ongoing game, I’ve generally got a couple of themes I’m exploring with the types of adventures I create and run*. For example, the big theme in the Storm Point game is “What makes a hero?” In Armitage Files, the main theme is “How much of a monster will you become to fight the monsters?” I try and make the adventures look at some facet of the theme in some way, though I try to be subtle about it.

Structurally, at this point, I look at some specific things to make the adventure fit and seem part of an ongoing narrative.

  1. How can I incorporate what has gone before? I always, always, always look for ways to tie an adventure into what the characters have already done in order to provide continuity. Even if it’s just letting them talk to a couple of NPCs they’ve met before.
  2. What will this lead to? If I’ve got an idea of the next adventure, or the one after that, I like to seed some hints into the current adventure, again providing some continuity.
  3. How much do the characters need to remember from earlier adventures for this one to work? If the answer is anything more than nothing, then I need to look at ways to build reminders into the game to avoid having to exposition dump on them.
  4. Where do the characters come into the adventure? I need a few hooks or exposed bits of the background so that the characters have a chance to get involved in my plot.
  5. What happens if they succeed? I need to have a firm idea of what success looks like in terms of the adventure, and what the effects of it will be. Now, success can look very different in different systems: in Trail of Cthulhu, sometimes the best you can hope for is survival, while success in D&D is usually measured in experience points and gold pieces.
  6. What happens if they fail? Similar to above.
  7. Is the complexity of the adventure appropriate to the audience? In Storm Point, I keep the plots simple. In Armitage Files, they’re substantially more complex. In Fearful Symmetries, I go out of my way to make things tangled, with conflicting demands on the characters.

Once I’m satisfied with the structure, and the way the adventure has shaped up, I move on to the next step. If it’s not working, I tear it apart and see if I can make it work. Sometimes, I can’t, and I junk it – not the best answer, but sometimes you have to kill your darlings.

5. Add the Crunchy Bits

Okay, so by this time, I’ve got a fleshed-out idea that suits my audience, my game system, and what I’m trying to do with the game. Now, I need to turn it into something playable.

This is the step when I stat things out, which, for D&D, takes up the most time. Other game systems make it easier to improvise stats for opponents, but I still need to set up some baseline things – a standard mook, stats for a big bad, the difficulty to do something that I know is going to come up, stuff like that. I like to have the mechanical things worked out before I sit down to play.

The other thing that I try and put together are a couple of well-described, atmospheric scenes that I think are going to come up. That might mean writing a description of a spooky old house, or it might mean coming up with a set of personality traits for a major NPC, or it might mean doing up a hand-out of an old letter that’s found in a flooded cellar. These are the little touches that can bring a game to life in play. These may be set pieces, or floating events that I just want to be prepared for, and sometimes they don’t get used. That’s okay, though; I can usually recycle them for other adventures or purposes.

What I have at the end of this is a set of game notes, with my flowcharts and stats and atmosphere pieces. I usually tuck everything into a folder, and put it away for a bit, taking it out for a last review a couple of hours before the game.

6. Postmortem

This is, in many ways, the most useful step in building adventures. After you’ve run an adventure, take a look at it, and ask yourself what worked and what didn’t. Be honest – both about the good and the bad – because you’re only doing this for yourself*, and this is how you get better. Look at how the players reacted to things, where they did something unexpected, where they ignored the clues, and where they were right on board. Write some notes.

Also write notes about what happened in-game: I’m a big fan of consequences for actions, and like to build what the characters do into the world. This helps the setting seem more dynamic, when you have others reacting to what the characters have done, and again builds in more emotional investment for the players. It also can help you spark a lot of ideas for the next adventure.


So, I don’t know how helpful that is for anyone else, but it’s helped me sort out my process for creating adventures for games. How about you folks? Any tricks you use to put your games together? I’m always willing to steal a good idea or three.


*Atrophy isn’t the right word, really. I dug myself into a rut, and it’s taken some effort to first recognize the rut, and then to start working my way out of it. Back

*Generally, I think it’s for good, but too much of anything gets stale. Back

*And my players, at least to a degree, though they’ve been kind enough not to say so. Back

*And, indeed, others may differ on my take on what their strengths are, but these are my takes on them. Back

*Though the implication to “Know Your Audience” is that, if you don’t know your audience, you need to learn about your audience. Back

*I still have plans to someday build a campaign arc based on the song The Riddle by Nik Kershaw. Back

*Added, subtle bonus: it shows the players that you value their input and gives them a feeling of control over the game, which leads to emotional investment and heightened interest. Back

*Actually, I don’t. What I use are more like mind maps, but that’s such a pretentious phrase, I hate using it. Also, I tend to use flowcharting software for this step. What I’m building is a visual representation of the relationships between different elements of the story. Back

*What can I say? I’m a literature geek. Back

*Unless you’re an exhibitionist GM with a blog, that is. Then you get to talk about your failures in public. Back

Take the Plunge


The following post is a little argumentative. What can I say? I feel strongly about this topic, and I’m feeling particularly stroppy today.

You have been warned.

I run a number of demo games, both at Imagine Games and at various conventions. I work the booth for Pagan Publishing at GenCon every summer. I talk to a lot of gamers all over the place.

And I hear one story more than any other:

“Yeah, me and my friends used to play roleplaying games, but then our GM moved away*, so we don’t game anymore.”

And while I nod sympathetically, inside I’m asking myself:

“So what? If you lose your GM, why doesn’t someone else take over? Was your GM the only person in the group who can read?*

Now, I admit my gaming group is something of an aberration, based on what I see elsewhere. We’ve got a core group of about a dozen, spread through different games, and in that mix we have three folks who run games regularly, one who does so occasionally, and another who wants to start. That’s a pretty high GM-to-player ratio in a group*. In fact, our gaming schedule is so packed that we have to take turns offering new games to the group, so that all the GMs have the opportunity to run if they want to.

But still. Is it such a leap that, if you like to play, maybe you should try to GM?

I hear a lot of reasons that people don’t do it. I’m going to take some time to discuss some of the big ones.

“It’s too much work.”

I’m tackling this one first because it’s the toughest one. Running a game is more work than playing. You generally have to do more preparation, you have to keep track of more stuff, you have to juggle more things on the fly. It’s a fair cop.

But is it really too much work? I mean, at the height of running D&D 3.5 for a high-level campaign, I was putting in about two hours of prep work for every hour of play. Our sessions usually ran for about four hours once a month, so that means I was putting in another eight hours a month. That’s only two more hours a week, and D&D 3.5 is one of the most complex systems to prep for I’ve ever played* – D&D 4E, for example, has me doing maybe half an hour of prep per hour of play because of the great online tools, and games like Dresden Files and Trail of Cthulhu take very little prep time because the systems are simpler and easier to work with for GMs.

Now, really, if you don’t have the time to put in the prep time, you don’t have the time. Real life should always come first. But most people can probably shake free an hour or two a week – certainly, everyone who comes to the D&D Encounters sessions have already done so to make it to the sessions.

As for the work at the table, when you’re running it, well, all I can say about that is that it doesn’t need to be. If you start small and simple, you’ll gain the skills you need at a surprisingly quick rate, and can move on to bigger, more complex things as you’re ready for them.

“I’m no good at it.”

Here’s a secret: neither was any other GM, the first time they ran a game. Honest.

Running a game is a skill like any other. When you start, you’re not very good, but practice makes you better. You know what doesn’t make you better? Not running a game.

Tied to this idea is the thought that your friends are going to judge you harshly. Well, I don’t know your friends, but if they’re your friends, they’ll likely take it easy on you. If they’re not your friends, why are you playing with them? And if you’re worried about your GM judging you harshly, don’t. The second most common story I hear from gamers is, “I always run the game, so I never get a chance to play.” Offer to run a game, and your usual GM is probably going to be so stoked at the chance to sit on the other side of the screen that he or she will do whatever is necessary to help you and make sure you enjoy the experience. Because then he or she will get to play more often.

“It’s too expensive to buy all the books.”

I have two responses to this.

  1. What the hell? You mean you’re okay with freeloading off the one guy in the group who buys the books? Do you seriously not see the issue with counting on one of your friends to spend his or her money to entertain you? I hope you at least pay for the GM’s snacks. Then maybe he or she will let you borrow the books to run a game.
  2. It’s not that expensive. Suck it up.

Now, when I say that it’s not that expensive, what I’m really saying is that there are games out there for every price point, including a wealth of free RPGs available online. You can pick up complete new games, complete in a single book, for under $20 from small publishers. Electronic files of the games are available from many online retailers at a significant discount over the cost of physical books. And used game books can be found both online and in many game shops and used book shops. You’d be surprised how cheaply you can put together a solid collection.

“I have to learn the rules.”

Well – yeah, you do, but you learned the rules in order to play, right? There’s not much more in the way of rules to learn in order to GM in most systems. And you don’t have to learn them all at once. This isn’t an exam; open book GMing is fine. And if you take a little more time than you like flipping through the book to find the rule you need, well, see what I said above about running games being a skill. It’ll come. Just give it a chance.

“I’m too lazy.”

Nothing I can say to this one but, “You suck.”

Okay. There’s all your excuses shot to hell. But why should you run a game? Here’s a list. I’m not explaining them in detail because, quite frankly, if I need to do detailed explanations of the reasons, you’re just not going to understand them, anyway.

  1. Because it’s fun. There’s a reason I’m running four games currently. It’s loads of fun.
  2. Because it’s another creative avenue of expression. Sure, you get to do a lot of neat acting as a player, but you get to do more as a GM. And you also get to shape the entire world the way you want it. Which leads to…
  3. Because of the power. Even if you’re not using the GM chair as a throne to oppress your players, GMs have more control over most games than anyone else at the table.
  4. Because you owe it to your GM. C’mon. Give the poor guy (or gal) a chance to play for a change!
  5. Because it grows the hobby and the industry. More GMs = more players = more sales = more good games. The math is irrefutable.
  6. Because it’s fun!* Honest!

So, take the plunge. Decide to run a game. Pick out a game you like, and read it. Talk to your friends about it, and get them on your side. Start small, but start. Go slow, but go.


*Or got married, or had kids, or enlisted in the army, or died, or whatever. Back

*Yeah, that last question is a little spiteful. What can I say? I get that way sometimes. Back

*We’ve also got a pretty high female-to-male ratio, with roughly half the players in any of the current games being female. But that’s a different topic. Back

*To be fair, Amber was worse, mainly because of the bookkeeping I had to do behind the scenes, and Decipher’s Lord of the Rings RPG, though I loved it a lot, was a lot of work mainly because of the lack of good stats. Oh, and Serenity was a lot of work, but that was mainly my fault for setting the game up the way I did. My Hunter game is a long time between sessions, but that’s mainly because it takes me some time to come up with a cool idea for the next episode. Not the same thing at all. Back

*Yes, I listed that one twice on purpose. It’s an important reason. Back

Where Are We Now? – Maps in RPGs

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately as I develop The Phoenix Covenant and the Hunter game is the role of maps in roleplaying games.

I’ve found that, over the years, the way I use maps in games has changed significantly. When I was much younger, I would spend hours mapping out complex dungeons on reams of graph paper, trying to make the most interesting labyrinths I could for my players to wind their way through. Now, I hate those huge, involved dungeons where adventurers are trapped to wander for session upon session.

I still love maps, though. A lot.

These days, I use maps as player handouts. I love watching players pore over the things, trying to figure out where everything fits, and what things I’ve left out, and what things are just plain wrong. They are in-game documents and, as such, I do my best to make them attractive and useful. Unfortunately, I suck at the visual arts, which makes the creation of attractive maps very difficult for me.

There are a number of programs available these days to build maps, though. Personally, I like Campaign Cartographer 3 from ProFantasy. It’s not cheap (especially if you get the add-ons like Dungeon Designer and City Designer) and there’s a bit of a learning curve with it, but it really does make it a lot easier to produce a map that I’m not ashamed to put in the hands of my players. I used it to create the maps for The Phoenix Covenant that you can see here and here. Sure, no one’s ever going to mistake my work for that of a professional, but the maps aren’t ugly, they are evocative of the setting, and they have useful information on them. The map of the empire took me about five hours to do to my satisfaction, and the map of the province took about two.

Ideally, when I create a map like these, I’m trying to accomplish a few related goals:

  1. Show the players where stuff is. Give them a geographical context for the adventures.
  2. Give some indication about the culture that produced the map. For the map of the empire, for example, I used a style based on the Mercator maps of the 16th and 17th centuries. I wanted to evoke some of the sense of exploration and the great empires of that period. The map of the province is much more spare and functional, as befits a remote region with limited resources.
  3. Generate curiosity to spur adventures. A few evocatively named locales or isolated features of interest will draw adventurers like lodestones.

That means that, as I create maps, I keep a few questions in mind:

  1. Who is making the map? What kind of culture do they come from? Do they have an agenda?
  2. What’s in the area that I’m mapping?
  3. What does the map-maker know about?
  4. What does he or she want to keep secret?
  5. What information is the map-maker trying to convey?
  6. What has changed since the map was made?

Now, I don’t have the chops to give actual tutorials on building maps – for that you should check out these guys. I just muddle through, trying different things until the map looks okay to me. And by okay, I’m looking for something that conveys the information and impressions I want and is not so ugly that I’m ashamed to put it in front of my players.

The other type of map I usually make is a battle map. For that, I use Dundjinni, which is a great, flexible tool for this exact purpose. I like it a lot, but it’s not as well-supported as I might wish. Still, it turns out wonderful maps to roll out on the table and push figures around on.

But what about those huge dungeon maps I used to love? I don’t use them anymore.

I’ve found that I, and my players, don’t like the idea of spending hours carefully moving from room to room, making choices that have little to no actual impact on the game. My players will spend a half-hour trying different things in empty rooms just to make sure they haven’t missed anything, and they wind up bored and frustrated. So do I.

What I’ve started to do – and this is not just with dungeons, but with pretty much all adventures – is use a flow chart. This lets me show the relationship and pathways through all the encounters (combat or otherwise) that I have in the adventure. White Wolf does this with their SAS system, and it works nicely there. It works just as well with other types of adventures.

I use Visio for these flowcharts, winding up with something that looks like this. Now, it doesn’t have all of the room details on it, but that’s what the key is for. I make my notes about the sizes and shapes and contents of the areas in a different document, flesh out the description and creatures and NPCs and situations, do up any battlemaps that I want to use, and I’m ready to roll.

This format lets me use some narrative devices to speed things along when the players start to get bored, too. I can say something like, “You’ve spent hours scouring the various workrooms, storerooms, and back hallways in this part of the castle, finding nothing of real value. Now, as you stand in the kitchen, you see and ominous glow leaking under the door to the dining hall. What do you do?”

And you know what? Not once has someone asked to go back and search the empty part more carefully. That’s a real departure from the standard tactics of my party when I actually had them going room-by-room through a fully mapped out dungeon.

The other advantage of this sort of mapping is that you can make sure that choices are meaningful. Forcing the party to choose left or right at every corner when it’s just rearranging the order of the fights is not a real meaningful choice. Flow charts spell out, very clearly, that option A leads to situation 1, and option B leads to situation 2. All the meaningless choices can be filtered out in the narration, with a line like, “After wandering through the twisty back alleys, you finally think you’ve found your informant.”

I guess that what I’m saying is that different kinds of maps serve different purposes. When you’re making a map, think about what you need it to do in the game, and then design accordingly. I tend to find that, for GM-only maps, simple flowcharts work best, while more elaborate and attractive maps are best for hand-outs.

Of course, if you’re good at drawing maps, and you like to do it, go nuts. And don’t be shy about posting your maps on the web.

I love looking at good maps, for inspiration if nothing else.

Drawing the Line – Willing Suspension of Disbelief in Gaming

So, my last post generated some vocal and literate counterpoints. These made me realize that I had left an important piece out of my discussion, which is what I want to talk about this time.

When does a legitimate concern about verisimilitude become an irritating quibble about realism?*

My answer to this is the idea of the willing suspension of disbelief.

Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined this phrase, saying that if a writer could create enough interest in and verisimilitude within a fantastic tale, the reader would overlook the story’s implausibility. Roleplaying games are the same way.

The trick, though, is the necessity of verismilitude. Things have to fit together in a manner that makes sense, that doesn’t strain our credulity. In short, we can’t ask too much of the audience (the players, in a game) in the way of suspending their disbelief. We have to make it easy for them to do so. And if it get’s too hard for them to overlook the things that aren’t making sense to them, they will start to call you on it.

What’s asking too much, though? Every group – hell, every player – is going to have their own limit. You find that limit usually only when you surpass it, so it can be hard to judge, especially with people you don’t know well. I’ve been gaming with my group for years (some of them for decades), so I know pretty much where everyone draws their line, and I work to respect it in running games. When I overstep, I pull back, and we sort it out.

See, I’ve discovered that people will only talk about how unrealistic a game is in one situation: when the game world does not respond as they expect it to. Expectations of how the world will respond are based on two factors: how the real world works, and how you’ve shown them that the game world is different from the real world.

Let’s be honest. We all have to start with the assumption that certain things in the game world will be like things in the real world. We generally play games where we have cause and effect, the basics of real-world physics, sentient characters, environmental dangers, etc. You can expect the game to have gravity, even if it’s generated by a machine in a space ship, for example.

As GMs, it becomes our responsibility to show how the world of the game is different from the real world. We show off certain differences right at the beginning of the game – people may play non-humans and have fantastic powers – but others are shown through play and only emerge as the game progresses. For example, the players may not know that the gravity of their world is caused by a magic gem set deep in the ground until they actually stumble across it on their explorations and have to escape from its terrible grip. Even then, the possibility of such a gem must have been inherent in the game – it would work in a fantasy game with magic, but not in a hard science fiction game**.

Players have only the real world and our description of the game world to base their decisions in-game on. If they take an action expecting a certain outcome based on these factors, and that outcome doesn’t occur, it creates a gap in the experience that forces them to rethink, and breaks the immersion and suspension of disbelief. This is when they start asking the difficult questions about why something didn’t happen the way they expected.

Now, some gaps in expectation are good. They lead to story, and therefor to game. For example, if the party is hired to rescue a princess from an evil duke, and they then find out that the duke actually rescued her from her tyrannical father, the party has more challenging adventure ahead of them as they side with the duke to overthrow the despotic king.

On the other hand, if the party is suddenly drowned in a shallow stream because you’ve changed the property of buoyancy in your world and it just hadn’t come up yet, that’s a bad gap in expectation, and you can expect a heated conversation to follow.

What’s the difference between the two? Well, aside from one being a pretty neat setup for a lengthy adventure and the other being a lame-ass TPK, the major difference is coolness.

Here’s something I’ve found in my lengthy career as a GM: Players will let you get away with anything as long as it lets their characters do more cool stuff. Even if it only implies that their characters have the potential to do more cool stuff.

It’s not free, though. The coolness has to be in proportion with the amount of nonsense you want them to swallow. If you want to have horses in your world replaced by riding dinosaurs, somebody’s going to start wondering about how you domesticate them, considering how hard it is to train reptiles – right up until the moment they see the Royal Tyrant Cavalry mounted on their armoured T-Rexes. Then they go, “Cooooooool!” And start trying to figure out how to get their own armoured T-Rex***.

Coolness covers a multitude of sins. If you plan on adding nonsense to a game – and really, we all like to do that – you’ve got to dip it in a layer of cool thick enough to make it palatable.

And when you cross the line and can’t cover it in cool? Well, then you have a couple of choices. You can either change things to make more sense, or you can create a reason why it makes sense the way it is. Why can’t a fireball blow open the walls of a small room with superheated air? The actual reason is that it opens up a wide range of new concerns that the GM has to juggle – how thick a wall can be blown out? What if a door is open? Do we get 1E-style fireball blowback? Does that mean I have to calculate the volume of the sphere and convert it to five-foot cubes to figure out how far back the wizard has to be standing? The complications compound.

So, you make up an in-game reason – the fire is instantaneous, transported to the site from the plane of fire, and it goes back there after the spell effect is complete, along with the extra volume of superheated air. Add in an effect where a strong wind blows in to the origin point of the fireball (no game effect), and you’ve generated your apologia, along with a little touch of cool to go with it.

A lot of this stuff has to do with the play style of your group, as well. Some groups like a very simulationist experience, where everything faithfully adheres to as many of the real-world assumptions as possible within the genre context. Some groups like things lighter and more free-wheeling, concerned with the spectacle over reality. And some only care about what serves the story. Your group is going to draw its line in a different place than my group.

But there will be a line.

You help to draw it, as the GM, but it’s the players who monitor it most closely. You must respect it if you want your game to be fun for you and for your players.




*I’m using these words in a specific, somewhat artificial way. My arbitrary contention is that it’s okay to talk about verisimilitude in the game, but that talking about realism in a fantasy endeavour is pointless. See my previous post.

**Maybe it could, but I can’t think of a way to do it without resorting to technobabble and applied phlebotinum.

***And for those who start to question how the riders make ground attacks, you distract them with the velociraptor-mounted skirmishers.

Realism vs. Verisimilitude in RPGs, or You’re an Elf That Uses Magic

I’m going to make a statement here, one that I believe to be true based on a quarter century and more of gaming.

No one wants to play a realistic game.

I’m going to make another statement now, one that I know to be true based on a quarter century and more of gaming.

People will still complain about a game not being realistic.

Both statements are true. This can get confusing, but it’s really all about that word, “realistic.” I have a friend who studied philosophy but gave it up because he felt that all modern philosophy came down to arguing over the meaning of words. I can see that. This very important point comes down to the meaning of “real.”

For most of us who aren’t billionaire super-spies, gaming is escapism*, something we do to inject some vicarious excitement into our mostly mundane and routine lives. It’s power fantasy and storytelling and socializing and getting out of your own head. That means that we don’t want to play something that mimics our everyday life** – we get enough of our everyday lives in everyday life.

That’s one value of real. And we don’t want it.

Even if we’re playing a simulation of some sort – WWII miniatures, for example – we still don’t want it to be real. We don’t want to spend hours trying to push our tanks forward three inches on the table, or have to roll for logistical and communications foul-ups***. We want to deal with the fun parts of the subject, not with the tedious ones.

Let’s especially look at fantasy and sf games. Even the hardest of the hard sf games**** interjects a few elements of impossibility: FTL technology, aliens, whatever. And when you wind up playing, as the title of this post suggests, an elf that uses magic, you pretty much forfeit any right to decry a lack of realism. I mean, if you swallow the assumption of a near-immortal race changing reality around them with a thought, why would you balk at the idea that the economic scheme for buying, selling, and creating magic items doesn’t make any sense*****?

Now we’re getting somewhere. “Doesn’t make any sense.” That’s the key.

See, when we talk about whether a game is realistic or not, we’re not really talking about that. We’re talking about whether the game seems realistic or not. We’re talking about internal consistency, logical coherence, and believability. We’re talking about saying, “Given the basic assumptions about the world and setting the game presupposes, this makes sense.”

The word we’re really talking about is, “verisimilitude.” The quality of something seeming real or true.

This term comes up a lot in drama and fiction. One of my acting teachers, lo, these many years ago, used to say (I wrote it down and kept it, because I liked it):

If you ever start to feel that you are the person you are portraying on stage, please let me know immediately. Then have a little lie-down while I call a psychiatrist. We don’t become our roles; we are actors. We act as if we had become our roles. If you can’t make that distinction, the stage is not the place for you.

When we game, we don’t want the game world to be like the real world. We want the game world to behave as if ****** it were a real world. We want it to follow a coherent, internal structure that meets our ideas of cause and effect, allowing us to understand the relationships within that world.

We want it to make sense.

Which, when you think about it, is pretty weird, because we don’t necessarily have the same expectations of reality. Aristotle said:

With respect to the requirements of art, a probable impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet possible.

What does that mean? Well, the real world is full of strangeness. Coincidence and synchronicity abound. Things happen every day that, if we read them in a book, we would point out as being far too coincidental. And in a game, they become very suspicious. Here’s an example:

  • If I go on vacation to Hawaii and run into my next-door neighbour there, we both say, “Wow. That’s weird.” Then we get on with our lives.
  • If a character in a book goes on vacation to Hawaii and runs into his next-door neighbour, we say, “Yeah, right. That’s completely unbelievable.” Despite the fact that such things can, and do, happen in real life.
  • In a game, if a character goes to a far away land, and runs into his next-door neighbour, the character says, “I wonder what he’s up to. Did he follow me here? Is he working for my enemies?” And then he attempts to knock his neighbour out and lock him in a trunk.

My point is that, in a constructed reality like fiction or gaming, we avoid certain aspects of reality, such as coincidence, as violating our sense of the real, despite the fact that such things are very much a part of reality. Reality, as Stephen King says, is Ralph*******.

Now, how this applies to gaming.

When you build an adventure, you need to keep the What, the How, and the Why in mind.

  • What. What happens? What is the event, the item, the character, the location? What do the characters have to do? What are the villains doing? This the core of most adventures, and serves as the starting point in development in a lot of cases.
  • How. What is the mechanism by which the What happens? If the villains are scrying on the characters, what magic are they using? If they’re going to blot out the sun, what device does that, and how does it work? If the characters run into their childhood friends, how does it come about? This is the first layer of explanation and verisimilitude, providing support and rationale for seeming coincidences. Players assume that this is here, even if it’s not, so best to be prepared.
  • Why. What’s the reason for the What? Why are the villains trying to blot out the sun? Why did the childhood friends come to the far away vacation land? This is the second layer of explanation and verismilitude. Again, players will assume it exists, so it’s a good idea for it to exist.

In a game, players don’t believe in coincidence. Everything is motivated by something, and that something revolves around the characters. This is a reasonable assumption; they are the stars of the story, and everything usually does revolve around them. Put some thought and preparation into it, and it helps the game feel richer and more real.

Now, there’s another type of realism bugaboo that rears its head from time to time. This is the real-world expert that tries to apply his real-world knowledge to the game world in order to squeeze some in-game benefit out of what he’s doing. This is the guy who argues that the heat of a fireball should cause the air to expand and knock out the walls of the building, or that, because he can fall 416 feet in a round, he should have a fly move of 83 squares. Or at least 40, because he’s gliding laterally. Or the economist who questions the stability of a kingdom’s currency because a hard metal standard can’t meet the needs of exchange and credit.

You know what to say to them, right?

“You’re an elf that uses magic. You don’t get to talk about realism.”




*I expect that billionaire super-spy gamers use gaming as a means of grounding themselves, and chilling out.

**”So, you’ve completed the website update. Roll your Dreamweaver skill check to see if you closed all the tags.”

***Now that I’ve written that statement, I’m sure there’s someone out there going, “But we do! That’s what our game is all about!” So, for you folks, I resort to this rebuttal: “That may be, but you sure don’t have real people really dying.” Those who disagree with this somewhat snarky and hyperbolic argument are free to discuss it with their local constabulary.

****I’m thinking probably Traveler 2300. At least, of the ones I’m familiar with.

*****And, really, who’s to say it doesn’t? When’s the last time you brewed a potion of invisibility? How much did you get for selling it?

******Stanislavsky talks about this idea at length in An Actor Prepares. He calls it, “the magic if.”

*******For an explanation of this weird little phrase, you’re going to have to read Lisey’s Story.

The Myth of Balance

I’ve been doing some thinking about game balance lately. Here’s where I’m coming from.

I remember back when D&D 3E came out. As information was slowly released, there started to be a lot of message threads on discussion boards about how different classes or spells or other features were broken – either too powerful or not powerful enough. When the game was released, there followed a real rush of house rules designed to fix the broken piece.

Same thing happened with 4E. Same rush of complaints, same rush of house rules.

Anything wrong with that? Nope.

But the threads became more strident and angry as time went by, with people arguing passionately* either for or against the broken item. It’s still going on and, with all the new powers in 4E, I expect it to continue pretty much indefinitely.

The issue at the core of each of these discussions is game balance.

A large number of the threads about powers say will say that a given power is unbalanced, meaning (generally) too powerful**. The words game breaker and win buttons get tossed around. And you know what? It’s all a bit ridiculous to me.

In my experience, there are two aspects of balance to consider. One is the balance between characters. This one, I take seriously – if someone feels that they have been slighted by the GM compared to another person in the game, that creates bad feelings, and that can hurt the game. It doesn’t matter if the perception is true or not: if it perceived to be true, then you’ve gotta deal with it as if it were.

These balance issues can usually be dealt with with a little communication. Talk to people. Find out what’s what. If one character is doing a ton more damage than the others, get that player to show the others how he built the character. If someone has more stuff, slant the treasure in the direction of the others until things even out. And if the perception is just plain wrong, look at why someone believes it and address that.

The other type of balance is the balance between the players and the GM. This is entirely illusory – a shared fiction that allows the game to take place.

See, I’ve been a GM for a while, now, and I’ve discovered that I can kill the characters any time I want to. And not just by resorting to Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies. Any time I want to, I can just change the numbers on a monster in combat to make it kill the party. I can bring in more monsters. I can pick a monster that’s already just too much for the party to handle.

There’s no balance. I have all the power.

There’s an inherent social contract in gaming, though, that says the GM won’t pull crap like that. The GM will give the party reasonable challenges that the party can overcome. That’s all it is, though: social convention. An agreement that the GM and the players will work together to make the game fun.

So, I have to shake my head when I see a thread complaining about how powerful a given piece of the game is, and how it destroys the balance. Especially when these complaints come from GMs.

Don’t you guys get it? You’re in charge! The characters can have all the toys they can carry, and all the best powers they can think up, and they’re still at your mercy! Have they picked up a power that creates a zone of healing? Keep them out of it, either by having monsters that can move enemies around, or by making the environment so cramped that the zone is mostly inside solid walls. Have they got a power that can kill a target every round? Swarm them with minions. See? And that’s just playing within the rules. If you start to fudge things, the possibilities are literally endless.

There’s another option, too – let it work. Let it be as beautiful and horrifying as you feared it would be. Let the players have the sense of accomplishment that comes from doing well in an encounter. Enjoy it with them.

And plan something tougher for next time.

What’s my answer when players in my games want to take a power that they think might be overpowered? I say, “Sure!” If it looks like it’s out of whack with the powers available to other characters, then I reserve the right to retroactively veto it, but I have never had to do that.

Never. Even with home-made stuff.

In short, balance is a myth in roleplaying games. Rules strive to create fairness, but they can’t cover everything, and they can’t force someone to follow them. Don’t worry so much about balance.

Worry about everyone – you and your players – having fun.

Everything else will take care of itself.



*And only sometimes literately.

**Very few complaints out there that a power is unbalanced because it’s not powerful enough – those powers just don’t get picked by the players. The complaint about lack of power is usually reserved for class features and other things that players don’t get to pick from a list.

Encounters vs. Scenes – RPG Terminology and Philosophy

I really started to notice it starting in 3E D&D, and it’s become even more prevalent in 4E. Adventures for D&D are breaking down to a collection of encounters. That’s the way the DMG addresses adventure creation, that’s the way the majority of the published adventures are written, and that’s the way I’ve been thinking about creating adventures.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing, really. But it does encourage a specific type of thinking about adventure construction, and that in turn shapes the type of game play you get in that adventure.

Let’s start with some definitions of terms. According to the DMG:

An encounter is a single scene in an ongoing drama, when the player characters come up against something that impedes their progress.

p. 34

Also according to the DMG:

An adventure is just a series of encounters. How and why these encounters fit together – from the simplest to the most complex – is the framework for any adventure.

p. 94

For contrast, I’m going to be talking about White Wolf‘s SAS adventure structure. Here’s what they say about scenes in their SAS Guide pdf:

Each scene is built as a discrete game encounter (or a closely-tied collection of game encounters) for the troupe to play through.

p. 2

And here’s what they say about their adventures:

Think of a Storytelling Adventure System product (SAS) as a story kit…

The basic parts that make up most SAS stories are simple: Storyteller characters, scenes and some advice on how you can put them together.

p. 2

So much for contrast, huh? They both seem to say pretty much the same thing.

Except they don’t, really.

D&D focuses on encounters, challenges for the characters to face, things that cause them to struggle. Whether it’s a combat or non-combat encounter, it is a point of conflict.

White Wolf adventures focus on scenes, which may or may not contain conflict, but that are focused on moving the story ahead.

What difference does this make?

Well, after my last D&D game, the discussion of the high points were things like how tough a monster was, or what a cool combat that one encounter was.

After my last Hunter: The Vigil game, the discussion was about what a cool NPC the Rag Man was.

It’s a subtle but profound difference. By thinking about the basic building blocks of the game – encounters/scenes – differently, a different mindset is created during both adventure creation and play. In D&D, the focus is on challenges overcome. In World of Darkness games, the focus is on story progression.

Let me put it another way.

In most D&D games*, the idea of spending an entire session attending a party with minimal dice rolling and no combat would be seen as a very unconventional session. Not necessarily bad, but different from the normal adventure. Especially if they didn’t have a mechanically-governed objective in mind**.

In most World of Darkness games, the idea of spending an entire session prowling through the sewers killing monsters and looting their corpses would be seen as a very unconventional session. Again, it wouldn’t necessarily be bad, but it would almost certainly be a departure from the norm. Especially if success (whatever that means in context) was based on the number of monsters killed.

Now, there are a number of reasons why this is. We can talk about genre conventions, the differences in appropriateness of tropes between fantasy and horror, modern versus medieval setting, and target market for the games. But all these things are focused through the lens of adventure creation, and the way the designers have chosen to address the universal RPG question of, “What do I do with my character?”

D&D is a game about heroic pseudo-medieval fantasy adventure. World of Darkness games are about dark modern horror stories***. The designers have chosen the tools, including the philosophy behind the adventure creation, to focus on the ideas that they feel work best given their respective games. And in many ways, I feel, the difference between the two is encapsulated in the simple choice of encounter or scene to represent the basic building block of the adventure.

So why am I going on about this?****

Because I was running into a brick wall designing the next adventure for my Post Tenebras Lux campaign.

Part of the goal was moving away from what my players called the Fight Club design of adventures, giving them more options and more freedom to respond to different situations. So, I’ve got a fairly loose, open-ended kind of adventure set up, with a small adventure site and a fair bit of exploration and interaction surrounding it. I sat down and created the combat encounters, and the traps and skill challenge portions, for the adventure in an hour or so, then sat looking blankly at the connecting portions, trying to think how to make the adventure more than just a bunch of strung-together encounters.

So, what to do?

Well, I’m stealing from the SAS school of adventure design, along with my years of experience running other games*****. I’m putting together a bunch of NPC notes, notes on the locales, little roleplaying scenes that provide story information without conflict, and other things. I’m using a very loose flowchart of the the adventure to show how one thing may lead to another, and how different parts interrelate.

And then, I’m gonna play it by ear, and let the characters set the pace and direction.

I think this will give me what I’m looking for.

See, I needed to make the mental transition from encounter-based design to scene-based design to make this adventure what I wanted it to be. Once I did that, I was able to look at the whole setup in a very different way, and see what needed doing to produce the result I wanted.

I want to be very clear about something, though. I don’t think that scene-based design is intrinsically superior to encounter-based design. I don’t think that D&D is wrong about how they design their games and adventures. I don’t think White Wolf games are inherently superior, or that all games should follow their model of adventure design.

What I do think is that we, as GMs and players, need to be aware of the underlying assumptions and design philosophy inherent in the games we play if we want to be able to make them be the games we want. The design and the system is just the toolkit. What matters is that, when you sit down to game, you and your friends have fun.

That’s all.



*Yes, I am generalizing here and, therefor, lying to some degree. I know that some people have different play styles. And don’t worry; I’m going to generalize about White Wolf games in the next paragraph.

** This is one of the blessings and curses of the skill challenge rules in D&D. Now, you can have a whole skill challenge centered around making a good impression at a party, and everyone can roll their dice to do it.

***Another example of the impact of language: adventure vs. stories.

****Dude, I’m at about 750 words, and you’re just asking this now?

*****In trying to gain some mastery of the 4E rules, I’ve been cleaving very close to the party line with adventure creation, doing things by the book. This has meant ignoring some of the skills at improvising in the middle of a game, or building a very loose structure, that I’ve picked up in running things like Unknown Armies, Vampire: The Masquerade, and Amber Diceless RPG.